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Here's How A.I. and Virtual Reality Can Help Companies Boost Employee Engagement and Productivity

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  • AI and VR are increasingly being used for employee training.
  • VR can revolutionize workplace education and increase employee engagement through simulation of the exact topic of training.
  • Accenture has been using Meta's VR headset tech to onboard 150,000 workers.

When it comes to solving thorny people issues like employee disengagement and lowered productivity, technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality will play a big role.

One area where this is likely to be seen most significantly is in employee training. The ease of use and immersive nature of AI and VR are taking employee training to a whole new level, said Tacy Byham, chief executive officer of DDI, an international human resources and leadership development consultancy company.

Of course, training employees with virtual reality simulations isn't new. Companies in industries from automobiles to health care have been using VR to train factory floor workers and emergency room staff for years.

But with advancements in AI, VR training can be used effectively for soft-skills training as well, which "creates an opportunity for employees to practice conversations," Byham said. "It also creates an immersive experience that feels safe, allows you to practice, and springboards you into really deep and relevant conversations."

Byham has worked with VR training sessions for years, since before the pandemic. She said all companies can benefit in various ways from AI and VR tech, and employers should start to incorporate these tools.

Increasing engagement, learning, and retention

Some of the biggest issues slamming HR teams include lower employee engagement and the scramble to retain employees, despite massive layoffs cascading through the tech industry.

Frankie Cavanagh, chief technology officer at Gemba, a virtual reality workforce learning platform, is dedicated to finding the best ways to engage people with learning. He said VR is a perfect tool to revolutionize workplace training and increase employee engagement.

"You've probably seen the memes about workplace training where employees click, click, click things, getting through online trainings as fast as possible," Cavanagh said. "These training are not fun, they're not engaging, and you instantaneously forget about things. VR is different, because it immerses employees into an experience."

"It's a way to help engage people, and once you've engaged a learner, you can pretty much teach them anything, so VR is the ideal vehicle to do that," Cavanagh added.

Learning and training through VR impacts workers in ways that traditional learning methods can't. That's because current tools like PowerPoint slides, online modules, and how-to videos don't block out the outside world like VR does, Cavanagh said.

VR immerses an employee into a simulation of the exact topic of their learning sessions. The sheer exposure and immersion into the topic greatly help workers remember what they are learning more than conventional methods.

"VR has longevity, in terms of retaining that information," Cavanagh said. "It's something that you experienced, and it wasn't just that day that you sat in front of your laptop, clicked through, and watched the terrible online video training."

Providing safe space for tough conversations

Whether you're a manager that needs to give a performance review or an associate hoping to talk to your boss about a raise or promotion, every employee at a company faces tough workplace conversations at some point.

VR and AI can help employees work through those situations and practice what they're going to say, addressing stumbling points, roadblocks, and mistakes before encountering colleagues in the real world, Byham said.

Employees can also prepare for the kinds of responses they might receive in return. In these VR settings, virtual humans could have a positive, negative, or neutral response to what an employee might say, making them better equipped to respond to similar emotions displayed in an actual conversation in the workplace.

"Let's say you're in a scenario where you need to talk to an employee about the deadlines that they've been missing," Byham said. "The employee in the VR responds with, 'What do you mean? Listen, you've thrown six different assignments at me. How are you ever going to expect me to get all this done at the same time?'"

In this virtual scenario, with emotions high, the manager has time to think about how to respond when this, or something similar, happens in real life, she added.

It's the ultimate responsibility of a leader to help lower the emotion in the room, Byham said. They're supposed to listen, connect with you, and help employees feel heard. These VR simulations help leaders break through and get into more in-depth performance conversations.

"You can have people see a movie, listen to a podcast, or receive good advice about how to have a performance conversation, but until you've actually stepped in and tried to do it yourself, you're not going to be able to change or improve your behavior," Byham said.

Incorporating advanced technology

While Byham and Cavanagh agree that VR and AI tech stands to benefit employees at all levels of a company, incorporating these tools is not a one-step, fix-all solution. The incorporation of these tools provides the first step in a longer journey to VR tech adoption.

Byham also urges companies to look at the feasibility of what it takes to incorporate these VR tools into their specific workplaces. Constraints like budget, equipment, and IT support could be hindrances to a company starting to use VR tools, she said.

Among the questions to address: Do you keep this equipment at the office and expect people to come in, or do you provide it remotely? Do you need more IT support to be able to support VR? What's your budget for VR investments? Do you have the right kind of facilitators who can help run the program and debrief the programs?

"To what extent are managers helping support people in their journey? You can't just leave it to HR to be the only ones," Byham said. "You need to make sure that you've got managers who are there listening, providing support, providing the coaching. It's one of the most important levers to ensure people will use VR and really create behavior change."

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